The Luton-based Vauxhall customer assistance centre was the UK's first dedicated automotive business handling customer and dealer enquiries. Today, the centre is playing an increasingly important role for dealers and customers across Europe as Vauxhall becomes a significant division within General Motors Europe.
Within the next 12 months the call centre will cover more than 20 countries, including Ireland, Poland, Scandinavia and Turkey.
Calls are evenly split between dealers chasing parts or asking advice and customers.
Pat Doughty, director at the customer assistance centre, said: “We are right at the leading edge of automotive customer care.”
Mercedes-Benz opened a similar pan-European call centre in Holland in October 1998, but it covers only nine countries. A tenth, Switzerland, will be added shortly.
Like Mercedes, GME uses foreign nationals to operate the phone lines.
“Many people become fluent in a foreign language, but we are looking for people who can also relate to our customers' cultural backgrounds. No-one can do that as well as a native,” said Mr Doughty.
Recruiting staff to the centre was relatively easy, thanks, in part, to Luton's – and the UK's – diverse cultural mix. Around 85% of those staff were already living in the UK. “We discovered there was a large Portugese community in nearby Bedford, for example,” said Mr Doughty.
Italian group leader Isabella Chimienti previously worked at Luton airport before joining the GM call centre in June. She said: “I see the call centre as a great opportunity to build good relations with people of another culture, as well as improve business procedure between European countries.
“I think that a multicultural and multilingual working environment is definitely the future for customer service businesses.”
Building teamwork across a multinational workforce of more than 330 is a difficult and time consuming task, said Mr Doughty.
The Spanish and Germans, for example, “are miles apart culturally – they work together but don't yet integrate”, he added. “But I can see a time when a German-speaking Spaniard sits on the German desk.”
Mr Doughty and his management team are also learning the individual foibles between the different cultures.
“We wanted everyone to use first names to customers on the phone,” he said. “The Scandinavians and Germans quickly told us that would not be acceptable to their customers, so we changed it.”
The Vauxhall customer care team won the internal bidding within GM Europe for the call centre because of its expertise, said Mr Doughty.
The centre currently handles about 3,300 calls a day. That is expected to rise to 5,000 next year. There are also more than 250 letters and faxes each day from the UK and already more than 300 from Germany.
“The Germans are keen on putting everything in writing,” said Mr Doughty, highlighting another cultural quirk. Unlike other call centres, there are no display boards showing how many calls are waiting or have been answered or missed. And, unusually in today's environment, the integrated voice response system has been switched off.
A person answers every call – 99.6% of UK calls are answered first time. The hit rate for other countries averages 93% and is rising.
This success rate is helped by a £400,000 phone system which allows all calls to be traced. If a caller hangs up before being answered, they will get a call back from the centre.
Incoming calls are split 50-50 between dealers and vehicle owners, said Mr Doughty and the most frequent inquiry is about parts availability.
Walk round the open plan office and apart from the subdued babble of different languages, there is another reminder of what this centre is all about: clocks, each telling a different time.
If it's 3.30pm in Finland, it's still only 1.30pm in the UK and 2.30pm in Germany.
The call centre also accommodates those precious moments when employees need to be alone: the 'scream room'. This soundproof room measuring about 12ft by 6ft is isolated from the rest of the office and was installed at the request of the staff.
It is somewhere to go for total quiet or just to scream. They might all be smiling, considerate people who really believe the customer is king or queen – but they are also human. “You get wound up by abusive callers whatever the nationality,” said Mr Doughty.